State Your Case: WR Mel Gray
Averaged 18.9 yards per career catch with 45 TDs
(Published April 2020)
Dan Dierdorf was a Pro Bowl regular during the 1970s as an offensive tackle with the St. Louis Cardinals. Two of his NFC teammates during that decade generally were Dallas safeties Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters.
Dierdorf would kid Waters over in Hawaii, “Charlie, I never knew how to spell your last name, whether there was one ‘t’ or two. But after watching you chase Mel Gray, I got some good looks at the (name on the) back of your jersey and know now it’s just the one `t.’”
Waters wasn’t the only defensive back who spent the 1970s chasing Gray.
The explosive speed element that Tyreek Hill gives the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in today’s NFL is the same speed element Gray gave the Cardinals in the initial edition of Air Coryell back in the 1970s.
At San Diego, Coryell had Dan Fouts throwing the ball with Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow catching it and John Jefferson, then Wes Chandler, providing the speed element. At St. Louis, Coryell had Jim Hart throwing the ball with Ahmad Rashad and Jackie Smith catching it and Gray supplying the speed. The Cardinals won the NFC East in 1974-75, then led the NFC in passing in 1976 and in offense in 1977. Gray went to the Pro Bowl all four of those seasons.
Gray set a national high-school record in 1967 with a 9.4-second 100-yard dash in California – a record that stood for 12 years — then attended the University of Missouri to play football and run track. He didn’t distinguish himself on the football field as a receiver, catching only 67 career passes, but the Cardinals still spent a sixth-round draft pick on him in 1971 as a potential kick returner.
And that’s what Gray did in his first two NFL seasons under coach Bob Holloway, returning twice as many kickoffs (47) as catching passes (21). But when Coryell arrived in 1973, despite Gray’s lack of physical stature (5-9, 171 pounds), the new coach put that speed to better use. Gray started nine games on the flank that season and caught seven touchdown passes.
Gray moved into the starting lineup full-time in 1974 and was as dangerous a receiver as there was in the NFC. He averaged at least 19 yards per catch each of the next five seasons. He caught a league-leading 11 touchdown passes in 1975 and averaged a career-best 20.6 yards on his 38 catches in 1977.
If Gray got behind you, as Waters can attest, he was gone. He caught 45 touchdown passes in his career with an average length of 44.6 yards. He caught three TD passes of 80 yards or more, three in the 70’s, nine in the 60’s and six more in the 50’s. Only 10 of his career touchdowns covered fewer than 20 yards.
But Coryell left for San Diego after the 1977 season and the fortunes as a football franchise left with him. It would be 30 years before the Cardinals would win another division title – and in the meantime, the team bolted St. Louis for Phoenix. In addition, Coryell’s departure probably cost Gray his shot at the Hall of Fame.
Gray did not go to another Pro Bowl after Coryell left and caught only seven more touchdown passes as he slogged through the Bud Wilkinson and then Jim Hanifan eras in his final five seasons. Fouts, Joiner and Winslow would all have lengthy careers in the San Diego version of Air Coryell and all wound up with busts in Canton.
Gray retired after the 1982 season with 351 career catches for 6,644 yards and those 45 touchdowns. His 18.9-yards per career catch ties him with Hall of Famer Lance Alworth at No. 13 all-time. Only two Hall of Fame receivers had better averages – Paul Warfield at 20.1 yards and Bob Hayes at 20.0.
So, are four Hall of Fame-worthy seasons enough for Gray to generate discussion for Canton? Four were enough for Terrell Davis. Twenty-one receiving touchdowns in excess of 50 yards should merit Gray some consideration.